Fort Negro (Fort Gadsden)
Background and Summary
Fort Gadsden is located in Franklin County, Fla., on the Apalachicola River. The site contains the ruins of two forts, and has been known by several other names at various times, including Prospect Bluff Fort, Nicholl’s Fort, British Post, Fort Negro, African Fort and Fort Apalachicola. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Fort Gadsden Historic Site is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1972.
During the War of 1812, the British hoped to recruit Florida’s Seminole American-Indians as allies in their war against the United States. In August of 1814, a force of over 100 officers and men led by a lieutenant colonel of Royal Marines, Edward Nicolls, was sent into the Apalachicola River region in Spanish-owned Florida, where they began to train local Native Americans. Although Nicolls claimed he rallied large numbers of Indians, his efforts bore little fruit in terms of actual fighting, and the completion of the war ended his mission there only a few months after his arrival.
Under New Management
Before Nicolls left, however, he built a fort at Prospect Bluff, 15 miles above the mouth of the Apalachicola and 60 miles below U.S. territory. He equipped the fort with cannons, guns and ammunition. The fort, originally known as the British Post, served as a base for British troops and for recruitment of ex-slaves into the new Corps of Colonial Marines. It was also a rallying point to encourage the local Seminole tribes to attack the United States. When the British evacuated Florida in the spring of 1815, they left the well-constructed and fully-armed fort on the Apalachicola River in the hands of their allies, about 300 fugitive slaves, including members of the disbanded Corps of Colonial Marines, and 30 Seminole and Choctaw American-Indians. News of the “Negro Fort,” as it came to be called attracted as many as 800 Black fugitive slaves who settled in the surrounding area.
Under the command of a Black man named “Garson” and a Choctaw chief the inhabitants of Fort Negro launched raids across the Georgia border. The fort, located as it was near the U.S. border, was seen as a threat to Southern slavery. The U.S. considered it “a center of hostility and above all a threat to the security of their slaves.” The Savannah Journal wrote of it: “It was not to be expected that an establishment so pernicious to the Southern states, holding out to a part of their population temptations to insubordination, would have been suffered to exist after the close of the war. In the course of last winter, several slaves from this neighborhood fled to that fort; others have lately gone from Tennessee and the Mississippi Territory. How long shall this evil, requiring immediate remedy, be permitted to exist?”
Attack on Fort Negro
In early 1816, the U.S. built Fort Scott on the west bank of the Flint River in Georgia for the purpose of guarding the Spanish-American border. Supplying the fort, however, was a problem; to take materials overland required traveling through unsettled wilderness. Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, the military commander of the southern district, preferred supplying Fort Scott by boat over the Apalachicola River in Spanish territory, which had the advantages of being both easier and of providing a likely casus belli, or a reason to declare war, for destroying Fort Negro. As expected, when a naval force attempted the passage on July 17, 1816, it was fired at by the Fort Negro, and four people were killed.
Ten days later, Jackson ordered Brig. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines at Fort Scott to destroy Fort Negro. The U.S. official’s expedition included Creek American-Indians, who were persuaded to join with the promise that they would get what they could salvage from the fort if they helped in its capture. On July 27, 1816, following a series of skirmishes, the official forces and their Creek allies launched an all-out attack on Fort Negro under the command of Lieut. Col. Duncan Clinch, with support from a naval convoy commanded by Seaman Jairus Loomis.
The two sides exchanged cannon fire, but the shots of the inexperienced black gunners failed to hit their targets. A “hot shot,” which is a cannonball heated to a red glow, from the U.S. forces entered the opening to the fort’s powder magazine, igniting an explosion that was heard more than 100 miles away, and it destroyed the fort, killing all but 30 of its 300 occupants. Garson and the Choctaw chief, among the few who survived the carnage, were handed over to the Creeks, who “scalped the Choctaw alive and then fatally stabbed him; Garson was shot in execution style.” Other survivors were returned to slavery.
The Creeks salvaged 2,500 muskets, 50 carbines, 400 pistols and 500 swords from the ruins of the fort, increasing their power in the region. The Seminoles, who had fought with the Black fugitives, were conversely weakened by the loss of their allies, and Creek involvement in the attack increased tension between the two tribes. Seminole were angry at the official’s for the fort’s destruction, and this would contribute to the breakout of the first Seminole War a year later. Spain protested the violation of its soil, but according to historian John K. Mahon, it “lacked the power to do more.”
In 1818, Gen. Jackson directed Lieut. James Gadsden to rebuild the fort. Gadsden did on a nearby site, and Jackson was so pleased with the result, that he named the location Fort Gadsden, after the lieutenant. During the Civil War, Confederate troops occupied the fort until July of 1863, when an outbreak of malaria forced its abandonment.